Photo by Dan Dry
The seed for this project was planted by Strauss’s students almost six decades ago. In the early 1950s, Strauss’s students, judging that his classes were of more than temporary interest, began to make arrangements to record them. Initially student notes of selected courses were distributed among interested students in the form of a mimeographed typescript. In winter quarter 1954, the first audio recording was done: Strauss’s course “Natural Right” was transcribed and made available to interested students. A grant was obtained from the Relm Foundation to support audiotaping, and in the winter of 1956 taping and transcribing resumed with Strauss’s course “Historicism and Modern Relativism,” followed in 1957 by a class on Plato’s Republic. Beginning in 1958, multiple courses were taped and transcribed each year, and, of the 39 courses Strauss taught at the University of Chicago from 1958 until his departure in 1968, 34 were recorded and transcribed. After Strauss retired from the University of Chicago, the practice of recording his courses continued at Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) and then St. John’s College Annapolis, up until his death in the autumn of 1973. As a result of his students’ efforts, there is an extensive record of Strauss’s teaching.
The audio record that has survived varies widely in quality and completeness. The recording equipment used was very basic. If Strauss in teaching moved away from the microphone, the volume of his voice may diminish to the point of inaudibility. While the microphone, which was not omnidirectional as today’s microphones may be, sometimes had difficulty picking up the voices of students asking questions, it often succeeded in capturing the sounds of doors and windows opening and closing, papers shuffling, and traffic in the street outside. The reel-to-reel tapes used varied in length but on average there was a little over one hour on each side. When the tape was changed, the recording stopped, leaving a gap in the record. Only one tape was used per class. If Strauss’s remarks went beyond two hours and some minutes, the tape would run out and he would not be recorded. Funds for this project were short, and the audiotapes, after they had been transcribed, were often reused, which is one of the main reasons why the audio record is partial and incomplete. For some courses, there is a taped record for every class session. For others, tapes survived for only one or a few sessions. Over time, audiotape deteriorates and the original tapes of Strauss’s courses are very near the end of their useful life. How the tape is stored affects its condition and the quality of the sound available. Those tapes held at the Special Collections Research Center in Joseph Regenstein Library were kept according to best practices. Others were not, with the audio quality being degraded in various ways.
Strauss allowed the audiotaping and transcribing to go forward, but he did not otherwise participate in the project. The transcripts received a limited and restricted distribution to his students; complete sets of the transcripts are known to have been provided to a little over 100 students. From the beginning, students had the understanding that the transcripts needed to be treated as essentially private documents. Beginning in 1958 and thereafter, an editorial headnote was placed at the beginning of the transcripts that said, “Recipients are emphatically requested not to seek to increase the circulation of the transcription.” This request was justified with the explanation that the transcript was “a written record of essentially oral material, much of which developed spontaneously in the classroom, and none of which was prepared with publication in mind…” that “has not been checked, seen, or passed on by the lecturer.”
While the tapes and transcripts of Strauss’s courses obviously do not represent the carefully considered and composed expressions of his thought found in his writings for publication, nonetheless editing and publishing the transcripts of Strauss’s courses online or in print will vastly expand the available material illuminating his thought and provide a clear picture of two decades of his activity as a teacher. The transcripts and tapes offer important insights into his views on texts he did not interpret in his published work, including Plato’s Gorgias (which he was starting to write about at his death), Meno, Protagoras, and Symposium, Aristotle’s Ethics and Rhetoric, Cicero, Grotius, Vico, Montesquieu, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. They also provide additional perspectives on texts he wrote about and altogether offer an introduction to a wide range of the major works of Western political thought. Upon the completion of this project, any student anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able in effect to audit classes with the twentieth century’s greatest teacher of political philosophy.
The reasons for limiting circulation of the transcripts have faded in importance. Strauss himself at one point took an interest in their publication. He signed a contract with Bantam Books to publish four of them, although in the end none were published. Jenny Strauss, his daughter and heir, as well as Nathan Tarcov his literary executor, heartily approve of their publication. Readers will still have to make allowance for their oral character, including possible careless phrases, slips of the tongue, and mistranscriptions. Careful editing will improve the accuracy of the transcripts through comparison with the audiotapes where available; enhance readability by shortening run-on sentences, straightening out any tangled syntax, improving punctuation and editing out mid-sentence false starts; and provide missing information and identify possible errors, while preserving in notes all of Strauss’s original words.
The digital remastering of the audio tapes produce audio files that may be preserved (the audio files are being deposited in the University of Chicago Library Digital Archive) and used. If one may judge by lacunae in the original transcripts that have been filled and mistranscriptions that have been corrected, the remastered tapes are often superior to the originals. Some of the original transcripts are radically incomplete, and the remastered audio files have allowed the transcription of entire class sessions or large portions of class sessions that had previously not been transcribed (in one case a transcript doubled in length after it was corrected against the audio files. A few other transcripts are likewise expected to grow dramatically in length after comparison with the audio files.)
The continued circulation of the old, inaccurate and often incomplete transcripts provides further reasons for publication of more accurate and complete versions. While the original distribution of the transcripts was limited, over succeeding decades the distribution has inevitably widened. Some of Strauss’s students shared transcripts with their peers and students, who did likewise with theirs, and sets of transcripts have passed down through inheritance, so that today the transcripts have a much wider distribution.
Publication of the digitally remastered audiotapes and as accurate as possible an edition of the transcripts will prevent confusion about or even manipulation of the record of Strauss’s teaching. Moreover, Strauss’s thought deserves careful, prolonged, and serious consideration and discussion. To promote such consideration and discussion, the Leo Strauss Center has undertaken the publication of the transcripts and audiotapes that record his teaching.
Photo by Dan Dry.